The Germans and their cars: history of a love affair

German car making is nearly as old as the nation itself and embedded in its heart, soul and mind. Replacing combustion engines with batteries is not a like-for-like swap. We are about to give up one of man's most emotive mechanical creations; more is at stake than facts and figures.
german cars
Autostadt of the Volkswagen AG, Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony, Germany. Credit: imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo
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The internal combustion engine is a beautiful thing. It has brought life to machines. For millennia, man-made constructions were propelled forward by external forces – coaches were drawn by horses, ships blown by the wind, farm machinery pulled by oxen, mills turned through the force of water. Machines of any description were passive recipients of energy, lifeless once the external source of their movement was removed. The internal combustion engine changed that. Turning fuel into kinetic energy through controlled explosions, it propels vehicles from within, making them independent organisms. It was the engine that made the car an almost lifelike creation, revolutionising and personalising our relationship with transport.

The electrification of movement will be yet another revolution; it removes the combustion engine — the beating, messy, physical heart of the car — and replaces it with the still, clean, chemical energy of batteries. This is more than a pragmatic adjustment. It will change the bond between man and machine forever.

When the German engineer Carl Benz designed his Patent-Motor-wagen in 1885 he could not have known what a milestone it would be in the history of mankind. He had long been working on fuel-powered engines but this was the first time he had installed one in a vehicle that could move people around independently. His wife, Bertha Benz, whose dowry had financed the project, proved remaining sceptics wrong by taking her two teenage sons on a 66-mile trip from the city of Mannheim to her home town of Pforzheim in the Patent-Motorwagen. The Benzes had done it: personal travel in a self-propelled machine had become a reality. Today, more than one billion cars drive along the roads of the world, yet not much has changed from the basic principle: a fuel-powered engine turns a number of wheels, and, sitting on the seats attached to them, the passengers move forward.

Of course, there is still much argument among Europeans about who invented the first car, but Germans like to think it was their Carl Benz. His name and those of other early pioneers, such as Wilhelm Maybach and Gottlieb Daimler, who all began to use combustion engines in the mid-1880s, have retained their evocative ring through nearly a century and a half of motoring history. When they set out to build the first ever cars, Germany itself had barely begun to exist as a state. The country’s young Kaiser Wilhelm II reflected the zeitgeist, and his Emperor’s Prize of 1907 was a precursor to the German Grand Prix.

As the country stumbled through its troubled history in the twentieth century, the car drove both progress and destruction. Adolf Hitler was arguably the first German politician who understood the emotive power of the car and tried to exploit this for his own ends. He built the country’s famed motorways in the 1930s which, as work creation schemes, became an important tool in the longing for pride and dignity experienced by a nation that had lost a war. The resulting autobahn system survived defeat, bombing and the taint cast over it by its ideological origins. Today, 70% of its network is free of any speed restrictions, and that means so much more to Germans than just being able to drive fast. The freedom and pride in automotive engineering it evokes are a part of the national psyche — the reason it has survived generations of politicians arguing for a speed limit, wielding accident figures and environmental concerns.

Hitler left Germany with another, equally enduring car legacy. He ordered the engineer and car designer Ferdinand Porsche to create a vehicle for the masses, a true people’s car, a Volkswagen. While the war got in the way of delivering the clever design, the idea endured, and it appealed to the British victors after 1945. Both VW itself, as well as Hitler’s brand new Autostadt (car city), Wolfsburg, survived. The VW Beetle became a symbol of the miraculous West German economic recovery and Wolfsburg still houses the world’s largest car plant. West Germans and their occupiers understood the importance of the car to German economic and psychological recovery and facilitated a spectacular comeback on both fronts.

But the car is not just psychologically intrinsic to Germanness. The industry is also an integral part of the country’s economic nervous system, currently worth 378.2 billion euros and employing more than 800,000 people, the single biggest sector of Europe’s largest economy. Much of this hinges on the combustion engine and the hundreds of its attendant parts and processes. Over 300,000 people work in parts production and delivery. While much of the industry has been outsourced to other countries over the years, all parts of the chain of car production still have a huge stake in Germany.

We are now on the brink of an equally important stage in the development of German car production, though, with the transition to electrification. Politicians and industry leaders are understandably worried. In Germany alone, the move to electric vehicles could cost more than 400,000 jobs by 2030. But as the sector scrambles to make this transition work, it also sees it as an opportunity. Porsche, one of Germany’s most prestigious car makers, has taken a huge stake in the Croatian company Rimac, which specialises in high-performance components for electro-mobility. Together, they say, they want to write a new chapter in the history of the automotive industry.

But will a fully electric German car industry lack a heart? Ed Conway, economist, historian and economics editor of Sky News in the UK, explains that electric motors and car parts are important but ‘really, it’s all about the battery; that’s where 40–60% of the value of a car will be.’ European countries are throwing enormous sums of money at the issue. So-called gigafactories, which will produce car batteries, are being built, such as Tesla’s Giga Berlin, and they will bring jobs too. But this is only one part of the chain. Europe currently imports the necessary raw materials as well as the intricate chemical engineering. ‘Competing with China in this regard will be difficult,’ says Conway. ‘It’s comparable to the Industrial Revolution, where we in Europe invented the car before the technology was exported to the rest of the world. We had a head start. The same is true for battery technology in Asia, where Japan, China and Korea have long worked on chemical engineering while we remained protective of our traditional industry here.’ Ray Massey, motoring editor for the Daily Mail, agrees: ‘Germans have always been good at intricate physical engineering — cars, machinery, toys. It’s something they have been very protective about.’

There is some hope that the vast amounts of investment in new technologies will go some way to transforming the industry successfully, while retaining its heritage and tradition. Volkswagen doubled its profit from battery-powered cars in 2021 and beat Tesla in Europe with a market share of 26%. But the size and range of Volkswagen hides the fact that on individual electric car models Tesla’s Model 3 outdid all its contemporary German rivals in Germany.

The EU has imposed ambitious targets on the whole sector in an effort to force a shift towards electric vehicles. Brussels wants nothing less than the death of the internal combustion engine by 2035. It has proposed cutting CO2 emissions from cars by 55% between 2021 and 2030. By 2035, it wants to raise the bar to 100%, making it impossible for car manufacturers to sell vehicles with fossil fuel-powered engines anywhere within the European Union. If this road map becomes a legal reality, the industry has just over a decade to adapt more than a century’s worth of tradition.

On the whole, the German automotive industry has accepted the challenge. Its leaders agree that climate change is a global problem that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The transport sector accounts for one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions. So there are good reasons to cut down on the amount of environmental damage caused by cars. In addition, there are concerns about air quality in urban areas. When travel was temporarily reduced during the lockdowns of the Covid pandemic in 2020, London and Paris reported drops of up to 70% in the levels of toxic nitrogen oxides in the air. Fully electrified traffic in urban areas could do wonders for air quality within a matter of weeks.

The new German government is also keen to modernise. The coalition contains a buoyant Green party which has taken key cabinet positions, such as the economics ministry, now headed by Robert Habeck, former leader of the Greens. In a controversial move, former Greenpeace boss Jennifer Morgan has been appointed Germany’s climate envoy, an indication of the extent to which activism has been reeled into the country’s politics. It is therefore no surprise that the coalition’s programme for the next four years pledges support for ‘the transformation of the automobile sector in order to achieve climate targets’. The government intends to make Germany ‘the leading market for electromobility’. By 2030, it wants at least 15 million fully electric vehicles on the road, although only 500,000 new battery-powered cars were sold last year, 13% of new registrations. But the trend is rising. The 2021 figures mark an increase of more than 300% compared to the previous year — no wonder, as government incentives to switch are considerable. Germans can get up to 9,000 euros to subsidise the purchase of a new electric vehicle, which is often enough to convince the sceptics. Surveys from 2019, when the bonus was introduced, show that around half of Germans were considering an electric or hybrid vehicle the next time they bought a car.

Given the rapid increase in sales of electric vehicles, it is tempting to assume that this trend will continue. But there are indications already that public support for electrification is beginning to plateau. Surveys suggest the willingness to buy an electric car has dropped below the half-way mark. Four in five Germans engage in extended online research before they buy a car, a process that seems to have taken the shine off the technology. A recent study by the research group Deutsche Automobil Treuhand (DAT) found that, ironically, it was the promise of immense state subsidies for electric vehicles in 2019 that led to increased research activity on them which, in turn, cranked up scepticism. Germans began to wonder whether the sourcing of raw materials and electricity is really more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. But the biggest concern, quoted by 79% of respondents, was what would happen to their battery after use. As the excitement around the new technology is giving way to cold analysis, an increasing number of Germans have turned away from electric vehicles and it looks as if they will have to be brought back through legislation rather than argument.

And therein lies the industry’s problem. The decision against a petrol or diesel car is almost always driven by rational argument and research, not impulse or emotion. For many Germans, cars are much more than a means of transport. The DAT’s report found that well over half of Germans experience a sense of happiness just looking at their car, an emotion unlikely to be triggered by a glance at the AEG washing machine. Four out of five said they see driving as a ‘fun’ thing to do, not the typical reaction when the Siemens vacuum cleaner comes out of the cupboard. Around 20% of German car owners even admitted they regularly take their car out for a drive just for the sheer joy of it. Enjoyment is not something Bosch needs to factor in when designing electric screwdrivers.

It is hard for Germans to love an electric vehicle in the same intense way. Electrics are quiet; they don’t roar, splutter or growl. They smell clean and neutral without the sharp whiff of petrol, oil, lubricants and exhaust fumes. They just seem less physical. Their batteries operate on complicated and invisible chemical processes, which power a relatively simple motor with much fewer parts. It is hard to look at the straightforward mechanics that propel an electric car and feel the same fascination that many experience when looking at the intricate levers, cogs and pistons that move conventional cars.

At the higher end of the market, car makers who rely on the emotional connection between man and machine to sell their cars have been rightly concerned about severing links with the combustion engine. Italian car producers Ferrari and Lamborghini have lobbied their government hard to push back against Brussels’ plans. As a result, Roberto Cingolani, Italy’s minister for ecological transition, is seeking an exemption to allow both brands to continue to sell high-performance engines, particularly their evocative V12 units. Former Lamborghini engineer Maurizio Reggiani has noted: ‘I believe that what we sell is emotion, and part of that emotion comes from the sound of the engine. It’s the sound Lamborghini customers want to hear.’ Some German car manufacturers agree. Oliver Zipse, chief executive of BMW and president of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, has also argued that ‘For very small manufacturers who, in the bigger picture of overall emissions play almost no role, there are good arguments for considering these exemptions.’ Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess, on the other hand, is less worried about the transition to electric vehicles. While he is keen to manage the process carefully, he feels that concerns over the loss of the entire industry have been ‘overstated’. After all, this is not just about the engine, he argues. ‘A lot of the car remains the same; it’s still seats, paint, body work, interiors, wheels, axles.’

The sector needs to look at more than just current sales figures, job retention and whether it can still sell the skin and bones of a German car if it contains a Chinese heart. Working in an American or Chinese battery factory on German soil does not replace the heritage of a chain that ranges from the very first idea, through the engineering process to assembly. German car making is nearly as old as the nation itself and embedded in its heart, soul and mind. If vast sums of money are being invested to adapt the country’s motoring heritage to modern realities and sensibilities, they need to be invested with an eye on history as well as the economy.

The entire relationship of the nation to its cars will change with electrification. Replacing combustion engines with batteries is not a like-for-like swap. The decision to transform century-old industrial traditions within the course of a decade is currently a top-down process rather than the result of entrepreneurial evolution. Instead of being whipped through by target-driven bureaucrats, this process should be a careful one, given due thought and public discussion. We are about to give up one of man’s most emotive mechanical creations; more is at stake than facts and figures.

Katja Hoyer

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and journalist. She is a Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Katja writes for The Washington Post, The Spectator, Die Welt and other newspapers on current political affairs in Germany and Europe. She is the author of the bestselling Blood and Iron - The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918.

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